Assembling the best grouping AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am has ever seen.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Pro-Am virgin Peyton Manning is the best in the country at what he does – commercials – and, on the side, might be the best quarterback in his family, if not the world. That’s talent. But it’s not enough to join this group.
Padraig Harrington won both the British Open and PGA Championship last year. But you won’t see the PGA Tour Player of the Year here.
George Lopez deserves to have a street named after him in Pebble Beach for all the joy he’s brought Del Monte Forest, Carson Daly single-handedly enhances the looks of the gallery by 8 percent and Brandi Chastain is a pony-tailed icon without equal. But none of the above will swing with this foursome.
This tee time is reserved for the best possible group of golfers from the 2009 Pro-Am field. Our selection committee approached its task irreverent of PGA guidelines, desires from Phil Mickelson to play away from the popular amateur fray and traditions that dictate top stars like he and Vijay Singh be scattered throughout the field. And we took a holistic approach – seeking more than a gift for the game, rounding out a group with plenty of game in other arenas.
There are two types of people in this world: Those who know Bill Murray is cooler than they are and those in denial.
Like the green at Poppy Hills’ 7th, that degree of denial is dumbfounding. From where the carefully trained selection committee is sitting, there simply seems to be too much evidence to merit that brand of blindness.
It’s well beyond Women want him and men want to be him. Scarlett Johansson wants him (see Lost in Translation) and Tiger Woods wants to be him. (If you haven’t seen Woods dress up as Murray’s iconic Carl Spackler from Caddyshack for an American Express ad yet, YouTube it tonight.)
In a world where the world’s best pros often do a dandelion “poof” upon glimpsing Tiger’s glare, Murray gives Tiger pause.
Disregard the overwrought “bumpy greens,” “six-hour rounds,” “having a baby” or “major knee surgery” alibis Woods has crafted to avoid Pebble Beach. The truth lies elsewhere – closer to his ego. Tiger’s a competitive cat. He likes to be the number one draw. Because Bill takes that away, Tiger tucks tail for the AT&T.
IF BILL MURRAY WEARS A SILLY HAT, HE CAN BE OUR TEAM CAPTAIN.
It’s an upgrade. While Tiger rewrites the record books, Bill takes on tougher editing duties, rewriting general social mores and the PGA rulebook. He somehow makes it OK to flirt with adolescents (“When you get your braces off, call me,” he once told a teen at Pebble’s first green) and octogenarians (“Anyone who can dance in the sand with an older lady at a PGA event,” says star Golf Channel commentator Steve Sands, “is doing fine by me”).
Social norms state DUIs damage celebrity images. But when Murray was pulled over deep in Sweden’s wee hours under such a suspicion, it might’ve enhanced his – though, as he told a pressing David Letterman, “I didn’t take out a newspaper ad.” His Swede friends had picked him up earlier in the evening in a golf cart; when it came to driving the golf cart home, it was late, and they told Murray they’d lose their licenses if they drove. “I told them, ‘I won’t lose mine,’” he says.
Neither universally observed golf etiquette nor the PGA rulebook are immune to Murray editing either. The standing ovations he coaxes out of galleries in his pro partners’ backstrokes are well-known; his penchant for bear-hugging attractive fans or pulling out harmonicas aren’t. One moment he announces betting on PGA tour is illegal, then bets both PGA-card-carrying pros and fans alike – and pays up when he feels like it (“I don’t bet on birdie putts”).
But there’s more going on here than genius improv on a 72-hole stage. Murray’s a damn good golfer, skilled enough to rank in the top two of comedian golfers out there despite the fact that he’s an Academy Award-nominated actor – and adept enough with his all-course game to claim the 3M Celebrity Charity Shootout against limber Timberlakes half his age. (Bonus point: last time he won, he tabbed Salinas libraries as his charity of choice.)
Get him on our foursome. In fact, if he wears a silly hat, he can be our team captain.
The best grouping going should include the best player in the world right this minute. So here he is: Vijay Singh.
For those drinking the Tiger milk, the following facts may come with a little curdle: Singh didn’t just win last year’s FedEx trophy, in 2008 he won more money than anyone else in the game. (Harrington took two majors, but Singh closed the season cooking at a higher temperature.) That makes him the best. And a fierce off-season fitness push makes him better.
More importantly, he’s in the game. With all due respect, the good Mr. Woods can’t be the best if he’s not playing. (Besides – no knee surgery excuses here: Singh just had surgery on his knee and appears here anyway.)
Woods better rehab hard – if he’s Roger Federer, Sing is Rafael Nadal, coming on strong. He’s the oh-so-rare PGA pro to have liberated Woods of number one world ranking, and can still claim to have won more events in any one year (nine in ’04) than anyone else since Tiger won nine in 2000.
Golf Magazine and Golf.com Managing Editor David DeNunzio spent time with Singh this off-season and came away thinking the big fella from Fiji is looking big and thinking bigger. “The way he has dedicated himself to getting in shape is impressive,” DeNunzio says. “He is a physical specimen. He’s built like brick shipyard now.’’
And he’s parlaying might with insight.
“Even though he’s consistently been a top competitor,” DeNunzio adds, “we looked at tape from 2007 U.S. Open and he said, ‘I can’t believe that’s me, I can’t believe I got so sloppy.’ So he got hard after it – he made some big changes overall by making some subtle changes to his set-up and takeaway.”
Singh, who turns 46 in a week, also earns this slot by winning on behalf of almost-over-the-hillers everywhere. As Sands points out, he’s had a career to admire in the last few years alone.
“Vijay’s had a hall of fame career just since turning 40 years of age,” Sands says. “Couple that with one of the most amazing stories in the history of golf considering where he came from in the middle of the Pacific to displace Tiger at world number one, and it’s just outrageous.”
And Singh will be plenty motivated after a bittersweet ’08 event in which he concluded a fabulous run by javelining his approach on the 72nd hold within 30 inches to force a playoff – only to drop the first playoff hole to previously-winless-in-199-starts, here-on-an-exemption Steve Lowery.
Golf Channel star commentator Steve Sands knows who he’d select for a dream foursome – he ticks off Fred Couples, Camillo Villegas to start – and, more importantly, why. (As of press time, Villegas wasn’t slated to appear here.)
“The crowd they’d draw would be outrageous,” Sands says. “A very handsome crowd for all age groups.”
His comeliness criterion carries over to amateurs and, interestingly enough, Sands promptly selects Couples’ playing partner-to-be for the week. “Justin Timberlake,” he says. “He and Couples will be a match made in heaven as far as people watching. Good for your viewing pleasure.”
Then he pauses. “You know, honestly, Justin would just about cover it [on his own].”
While Sands just earned himself honorary commentator status for the Weekly’s fine foursome, our standards are a little loftier. We want our guys to trigger all the trembling they can, but one-trick ponies aren’t invited to this rodeo.
Timberlake’s otherworldly versatility has us covered there. When he does the teardrop finger-drag down his cheek, money drops from the sky (he’s sold almost 20 million records post-N Sync). When he speaks, catch phrases echo for years thereafter (“wardrobe malfunction”). He’s got a record label, a fashion label and two restaurants.
He’s as big a mainstream pop success as there is, but still expands his appeal by running around with Nelly and Timbaland – and reserves time for the counterculture machinations of YouTube movements like “Jizz in Your Pants” and SNL phenom “D*ck in a Box.”
With apologies to Michael Bolton, he might be the best singer to tee off, and with Dancing with the Stars’ Emmitt Smith not playing this year, he’s easily the best dancer. In his fast-blooming movie career, with parts ranging from rough-neck Alpha Dog to fairy-tale Shrek the Third, he demonstrates his versatility all over again.
His golf game further cements his spot – after all, the guy hosts his own golf tournament and is a 4 handicap. All told, the manifold talents would make him overqualified for just about any other foursome; with this group, though, it feels justified.
Phil is a freak. Not because he’s a southpaw, but because he’s won eight times as many PGA Tour events as the next-best lefty. And because he beat a PGA field of professionals when he wasn’t one, has made more money at his craft than anyone other than Tiger and has registered more consecutive seasons pulling down $500,000 than anyone, Woods or otherwise.
The freakiest thing about Mickelson, though, might be that deer-in-headlight-heaven grin he wears when the sun shines on him here. While other pros bristle at extended wait times and rowdy galleries, he seems to float around focused, eerily calm and spookily genuine.
“He’s good in that AT&T Pro-Am atmosphere,” Sands says.
His track record here speaks for itself: his Waterford collection (three) is eclipsed only by Mark O’Meara’s five, he owns a share of the course record at Spyglass and is tied for the tournament’s lowest finish ever. No wonder he’s smiling.
“I believe in horses for courses,” Golf Magazine’s Denunzio says. “Both Spyglass and Pebble favor a long hitter. Phil’s that kinda guy. For a guy like him, the first six holes at Pebble are easy. I expect to see him pounce on those holes. And Spyglass is a long, tree-lined course great for guys with control both ways off the tee.”
But his DayGlo disposition and chemistry with the coursework are not what have earned him a slot in the Weekly’s ultimate foursome – it’s the fact that he might catch fire any time he sparks his swing.
Mickelson went seven under one day at Scottsdale – on the front nine. He owns the all-time PGA record for most birdies over 90 holes, and is second all time over 72, with 31. He gave Spyglass the blowtorch treatment with birdies on six of the first eight just a few AT&Ts ago. When he won in 2007, plucking birds on four of six holes at the turn and burning up the back stretch with birdies at 15, 17 and 18, the record margin and his 66 didn’t fairly represent how quickly and completely he took over.
It’s this flammable Phil we want in our group, the gambler with kindling in his hand rather than the play-it-safe softie looking to lay up. As Denunzio says, “People who know Phil know that the gambler in him is better than the guy who calculates shot by shot.” We think we’ll get it, especially as he comes in heated after missing the cut last year as defending champ and at the tour’s first event of the season a few weeks ago. Sands even anticipates a party on the 18th in his honor.
“Phil missed the cut last week, so he’ll be motivated this week and next [the AT&T],” he says. “He loves playing there; he’s good with fans and the demands on time playing with stars. I don’t think [missing the cut] sits well either. All signs point to a Mickelson win.”